Singapore: the unexpected nation
EDWIN LEE SIEW CHENG
Singapore: the unexpected nation
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008
xxii + 707 pp. ISBN 978-981-230-795-8, pb S$49.90, US$39.90
Reviewed by Nicholas J. White
Liverpool John Moores University
This book by Edwin Lee, a former head of the department of history at the National University of Singapore, is part of a series of nation-building histories of Southeast Asia, overseen by Wang Gungwu. Like other volumes in the programme there is a focus upon contemporary history (only three chapters and 98 pages, for example, are devoted to pre-1955 Singapore).
Nation-building was never going to be an easy task in Singapore, given the legacy of ethnic division and rivalry left by British colonialism (and exacerbated by the Japanese occupation). Moreover, there existed political and intellectual fissures within the various immigrant communities – notably, Guomindang and Communist rivalries within the majority Chinese population. Meanwhile, the politically conscious English-educated Chinese, Malay, Eurasian and Indian intelligentsia, which challenged British rule after 1945, espoused a Malayan rather than a specifically Singaporean identity. This was epitomised by the thinking of Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore from 1959–90, and senior minister thereafter. Inaugurated in November 1954, Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) was committed to a ‘unitary government’ for Malaya and Singapore based on a multi-racial ‘Malayan nationality’ (p. 95). Indeed, as the author skilfully documents, it was Lee Kuan Yew’s insistence on a Malaysian Malaysia – rather than a Malay-dominated one – which would lead to his ‘moment of anguish’, when Singapore left the federation in 1965.
After carefully analysing the rise to power of the PAP and the failure to integrate Singapore with Malaysia, the bulk of Edwin Lee’s book turns towards the tremendous efforts of successive PAP governments to try and instill a sense of Singaporean identity in this ‘unexpected nation’. Indeed, Lee argues that nation-building has largely been a top-down project:
The government was the prime mover [of change], and had to act like some benevolent but hard-driving latter day Moses, leading a timorous, complaining middle class into the new frontier of global competiveness. The government launched all the new business ventures, which became established household names. It forced people to save through the CPF [Central Provident Fund] system, and encouraged nationwide home ownership through a public housing board, which was to bill itself as the biggest real estate office on earth (p. 559).
As Lee Kuan Yew himself commented in 1982: ‘the PAP is at the heart of the nation’ (p. 453).
Economic strategy shifted from import-substitution industrialisation (based upon the Malaysian common market) to the export-oriented variety (based on global markets), drawing in multinational enterprises but also based upon high levels of state intervention. National Service after 1967 – despite some resistance – made Singaporeans ‘identify with the nation’ and proved ‘a great social leveller and unifier’ (p. 292). The defence industries which subsequently sprang up ‘yielded intangibles like satisfaction and pride to their creators and the country, both aspiring to high-tech production and setting great store by knowledge, skills, and inventiveness’ (p. 292). The ‘self-reformed communist’ (p. 461), C. V. Devan Nair, would steer the National Trades Union Congress towards tripartite bargaining between unions, employees and government. The ‘trust and rapport’ (p. 467) established with the unions is apparently borne out by the accepted cut of CPF contributions and two years of wage restraint during the recession of the mid 1980s. Meanwhile, excessive individualism and western-style ‘hippieism’ (p. 536) was also fought off through, for example, the closure of the Singapore Herald in 1971. Instead, ‘Asian values’ were nurtured.
In education there were particular difficulties given the existence of four separate and unequal modes in the school system. Only in the English-medium schools was there inter-communal mixing. Integration and bilingualism would prove ‘a long and painful labour’ (p. 300). But, eventually, the realisation by parents that an English education was likely to lead to greater job opportunities for their children led to the demise of exclusively Chinese, Malay and Tamil streams. Heavy-handed state intervention was still required, however. The demand of the Nanyang Siang Pau for Mandarin as Singapore’s national language was dealt with by the arrest of four of the newspaper’s executives in 1971. The purging of the Chinese-chauvinist Nanyang University (Nantah) was related to support from its staff and students for the communist-inspired Barisan Sosialis and Singapore Association of Trade Unions. But the assault upon Nantah also chimed with the PAP’s economic strategy to ‘put a premium on English language’ and ‘undermined the entire edifice of Chinese education’ (p. 418). At the University of Singapore, meanwhile, the primacy of national interests and unity also required increased government interference. Technology and science were given greater prominence in the curriculum, student antics were not tolerated, and ‘intellectual decolonisation’ meant rejection of the Oxbridge model. Academic freedom would be respected ‘but not in vaccuo. That is what national identity mean[t]’ (p. 379).
The massive re-housing projects from the 1960s fulfilled the PAP’s promise of decent accommodation for all. Early on here, however, the stress was on home ownership rather than renting to provide average Singaporeans with ‘a stake in the nation, a tangible asset’. Hence, Chinese-medium school teachers would be transformed from anti-colonial radicals to property investors and rentiers, more likely to vote ‘responsibly’ in elections. But, by the early 1980s, Lee and his ministers became increasingly concerned at class and ethnic and differentiation on housing estates. After 1989, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) set ethnic quotas for blocks of flats to try and prevent re-segregation.
Indeed, this last example demonstrates the limitations on national unity and identity in multicultural Singapore. In the 1990s, it was still apparent that Malay, Indian and Eurasian minorities, as well as the Chinese-educated majority, felt marginalised. Malay professionals increasingly rejected the PAP and its agencies. Demands were made for separate eating arrangements for Muslims, as well as prayer rooms and headscarf wearing (for girls), at primary schools. Amongst the lower income Chinese-educated Chinese there was a resurgence of demands for the prominence of Mandarin. Community Development Councils were established in 1997 to try and bridge the gaps between central government and the locales, and more Malay MPs were appointed to parliament and junior ministerial office. But Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong would make no compromises on the principle of meritocracy; nor with bilingualism (which was the touchstone of a meritocracy in PAP thinking). In the 1997 election campaign, Goh slapped down the Chinese chauvinists with the argument that English was the leveller in a multicultural society and in an economy driven by multinationals.
Yet, at the same time, the author demonstrates how the PAP has increasingly accepted cultural difference. After evidence in 1988 that US embassy staff had been involved in an attempt to turn Singapore into a liberal democracy, there were government attempts to develop Confucianism as the basis of a national ideology. But this never achieved a legal status. Although a stress on ‘Asianisation’ remained, the dream of PAP intellectual S. Rajaratnam of an integrated Singaporean-ness was undermined from the late 1970s by a policy of encouraging different ethnic groups to take pride in their culture. As such, the ‘hyphenated Singaporean’ has remained to the fore – i.e. the tendency for Singaporeans to identify themselves as Singapore Chinese, Singapore Indian, Singapore Malay etc. Even Lee Kuan Yew admitted in 1991 that he felt more Chinese than he had 30 or 40 years previously through his ‘rediscovery’ of his ethnic roots. Hence, the author concludes that national identity in Singapore has been more associated with economic development, meritocracy and multi-racialism rather than a distinct Singapore culture.
How to maintain a Singaporean sense of community against global pressures – for example an increasing number of Singaporeans migrating abroad, while increasing numbers of foreigners work in Singapore – has been a major concern of the PAP government from the early 2000s. Committees and think-tanks have recommended some liberalisation, and the government is increasingly moving towards the private sector as the chief engine of economic growth, with a concomitant stress on critical thinking and entrepreneurship in schools. ‘But, in the matter of politics, caution prevails’ (p. 590). Having said that though, Edwin Lee demonstrates throughout his book how the PAP has not remained a static entity in its nation-building project. It has shown itself able to renew itself and remain liberal in its cooption policy at least – for example, in the appointment of former student radical Tharman Shanmugaratnam as Minister of Education. Edwin Lee is confident, therefore, that: ‘Globalization will not weaken the concept of Singaporean if the government is as determined as the PAP is to continue working on it’ (p. 660).
The book is sometimes repetitious and the text jumps from issue to issue, making the argument not always easy to follow. It is arguable whether the length of the volume is justified. A map would also have been useful, especially during the discussions of housing projects. Even so, Lee has produced a readable and comprehensive history of post-war Singapore. There are some wonderful insights – such as, the contrast between David Marshall’s political meetings in the early 1950s which were ‘in the manner of a salon, complete with champagne and elegant tidbits’, whereas ‘Lee [Kuan Yew]’s group met in a basement in Lee’s house, symbolic of their determination to rough it out’ (p. 94); on the prime ministerial styles of Goh Chok Tong as against Lee Kuan Yew: ‘Goh was the conductor of an orchestra of stars. Lee was the star soloist of the orchestra’ (p. 481); while, Chinese-educated voters in the 1980s and 1990s did not want ‘a change of government but they badly wanted to have the attention of government’ (p. 517). In terms of sources, there is perhaps an over-reliance on Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, particularly in the discussion of the ‘battle for merger’ with Singapore. In this regard, it is unfortunate that A. J. Stockwell’s edited collection of British documents (Malaysia, London: The Stationery Office, 2004) is not drawn upon. But, as well as the secondary literature, Edwin Lee has made good use of Singapore newspapers, parliamentary debates and reports of government agencies, such as the HDB, which make this study far more than merely a reiteration of Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Singapore Story’. Indeed, although produced in Singapore by a Singaporean academic, this is hardly an uncritical account of PAP rule. For example, the pro-Asian recruitment policy of Dr Toh Chin Chye, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore after 1968, is subject to an interesting comment: ‘The best universities are the ones most open and receptive to talents, no matter where they originated from. The pro-Asian staff search contradicted the very idea of a university’ (p. 411). Let us hope that Edwin Lee’s idiom is respected in Singapore, and indeed on a global scale.